Google is on an ongoing mission to rid its search results of spammy websites and poor quality content. After implementing the first few Panda updates, which focused on assessing websites based on the quality of their contents, the first Google Penguin update was released in April 2012. This algorithm update looked beyond the contents of a website, examining the search engine optimisation (SEO) tactics that a site may have used, and then penalised those sites who had seemingly employed spammy strategies to artificially boost their search engine result placement.
Until this point, many webmasters used “black hat” techniques to trick the search engines into believing that their website was incredibly popular, often by building many thousands of links by disseminating auto-spun articles, link cloaking, fake blog networks and questionable link schemes. The idea that the more backlinks a website had, the more popular it must be, had been exploited by SEOs and Google took decisive action.
The Google Penguin update began and websites which were considered to be “over-optimised” lost search engine rankings. As the filter was applied, just over 3% of search queries were affected, and those sites which Google perceived to have broken Webmaster Tools guidelines and tried to exploit black hat strategies to falsely improve how their site is regarded found their rankings, and as a result their site visitor numbers, rapidly diminishing.
Over the following months, updates to the Penguin algorithm were issued and applied, re-categorising many websites. The changes also involved reassessing the positions of sites whose owners had improved their site and situation significantly, after being initially punished by the original update. This meant that a small number of those sites which had been penalised had their former positions reinstated, although success in this respect was difficult for many to achieve. Often, a complete rehaul of a website and its backlinking strategies had to be instigated, and webmasters had to actively distance themselves from the poor quality backlinks they may have previously pursu
As well as the locations of backlinks, the content of the anchor text also came under scrutiny. Search engine optimisers had previously recommended using the anchor text, i.e. the words that are clickable in a link, as a way to improve the chances of ranking for that particular word or phrase. However this turned out, in many cases, to compile a very unnatural-looking backlink profile. If links to a site were generated naturally, then the anchor text would vary, so a health information website might expect the links to their site to have anchor texts such as:
- Health information
- Details of health conditions
- Lots of health info here
- Reliable health information
- Click here
- Click this link.
If those same links had been generated in an automated, less reputable way, and the website really wanted to rank for the search term “reliable health information”, then every single one of their backlinks might use that search term alone. Penguin became adept at spotting this as a pattern which also suggested some underhand tactics had been employed.
The Penguin update, although affecting fewer search results than Panda, was more of a challenge to many website owners because many of the changes that had to be made to resolve the problems were external to their own web properties. With Panda, most of the improvements that were required to be re-indexed by Google involved a site owner fixing their own website, but with Penguin, hundreds or thousands of questionable backlinks, all over the web, had to be dealt with. If they had previously authorised SEOs to propagate tens of thousands of spam blog comments and article directory submissions and these were now damaging their site’s reputation, then trying to retract, unpublish or disavow these links turned out to be a huge task for many.
It is not impossible to recover from the Google Penguin updates, but as they continue to be updated and implemented, it is harder and harder to hide any underhand, over-optimisation tactics that have been used. Seeking to remedy these, even if the site so far has not been penalised, will prevent further problems and promote a far healthier attitude to search engine optimisation efforts.